Assault on El Cap

Jeff Vargen’s film Assault on El Capitan tells the story of the second ascent of Wings of Steel

By Cameron M. Burns

As a kid growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, I was a decent surfer. Indeed, I remember at age 10 some older kids at the beach where I regularly went asked me when I was going to go pro. They ridiculed my board, but said I could get a better one if I was planning to turn pro. It was all easy talk. Nothing rough. And, as usual, I was clueless. What the heck was “pro”?

Fast forward 15 years. I was living in LA and working in the film industry. I surfed in Malibu a few times, but hadn’t really surfed since 1978 in Australia. On one ride, another surfer literally tackled me from behind (as we both went down the same wave), later screaming at me that I’d dropped in on him (which I had, accidentally) and telling me I couldn’t surf there because I wasn’t a local. Oh yeah? Sure, I was 15 years out from my glory days as a kid but wasn’t surfing about having fun?

WTF was this? I’m not even sure the guy who tackled me was a “local,” (he had a full wetsuit on and most of the surfers I saw during my attempted Malibu rebirth were dressed like me), but clearly, this was a territory issue.

Any climber who’s spent even a little bit of time in Yosemite knows the story of Wings of Steel, a hard aid climb on El Cap. In 1982, 23-year-old Richard Jensen and 20-year-old Mark Smith arrived in Yosemite Valley with the goal of climbing a new route on the Capitan, one of the most coveted pieces of stone on the planet.

Thirty-nine days later they topped out on the big stone but it hadn’t been without its problems. Yosemite locals—taken aback that two outsiders were on their rock—had harassed them and made death threats. Three locals, whom to this day remain anonymous, went even further. One night while Jensen and Smith were on the ground, these three ascended several ropes Jensen and Smith had fixed, chopped all the bolts and rivets Jensen and Smith had laboriously drilled and placed by hand (and that’s noteworthy because by the early 90s, everything was being Bosched into place on El Cap), and rappelled off. They pulled Jensen and Smith’s ropes, heaped them into a pile, then defecated on them.

Yosemite-based climbers considered the route unworthy of its location on El Cap, although reports circulated that Jensen and Smith’s climb was pretty darn hard. Indeed, a few brave souls who tried the first few pitches (if memory serves, including Rob Slater) came back with stories of tenuous gear and long falls.

Twenty-nine years after the first ascent of Wings, Yosemite hardman and character Ammon McNeely—the veteran of more than 75 ascents of El Cap—decides he should do the second ascent. And, he brings in his girlfriend, Kait Barber, as his partner.

In 2011, filmmaker Jeff Vargen was on vacation on the East Coast and got a text from McNeely that he and Barber were going up on the big stone.

“I asked which route,” Vargen noted in an email to this writer. “He [Ammon] texted WOS. I laughed. No one does WOS and no one would do that slab in mid-summer, but that’s him—do things quietly and under the radar. Word got around that he was doing it and the Supertopo trolls followed his progress as Kait’s mom posted from the wall.”

When McNeely and Barber got down, Vargen went to look at the pictures and video clips that McNeely and Barber had recorded. Vargen was impressed. “One thing led to another and I called a few people I knew and they said they would be happy to talk on camera about WOS,” Vargen noted. “And then it kept going from there.” [WOS is an explosive topic on Supertopo.]

This film starts with a lot of historical discussion about climbing in general, climbing walls, and finally Wings of Steel specifically, including interviews about territory and locals versus outsiders with (Chris McNamara (Supertopo creator), Peter Haan (first Salathé solo), and Eric Kohl (general El Cap bad-ass) are interviewed, along with Hans Florine and Ron Kauk.

Steve Grossman is given the tough cop role, discussing how Jensen and Smith weren’t “forthright” about what they were doing up on the big stone while locals below heard about endless bolting. Grossman makes valid points, which are more or less later left unaddressed as a result of the difficulty of this particular climb and the respect the first ascensionists got from the second ascensionists.

Still, it’s all honest. Vargen told me via email: “Richard and Mark were kind enough to come to be interviewed. I never told them what kind of film I was making and they had no idea how they would be portrayed in the film. They trusted me that it would be fair but I told them it will fall as it falls. They agreed to tell their story and see what happened. they are brave souls. Steve Grossman was the same way. He came and said his peace, wondered how it would come out, but he answered everything I asked in an honest way. We did not chop him up to manipulate the tone. It was said as you see and hear it.”

In general, Assault doesn’t offer a whole lot of explanation for a lay viewer about what hooking is all about (it is scary, BTW), or aid, or wall climbing in general, but that doesn’t matter. The viewer gets the point. This climb is a balls-to-the-walls wall, and the first ascensionists got treated unfairly. And, yeah, the territory thing is always there—in climbing as in surfing.

All that spewed, what’s nice to report is that this is a wonderful wonderful (yeah, that’s two wonderfuls (sorry, three now)) film about McNeely and Barber. It gives us access into the world of a guy many of us have heard about for years (McNeely) and his whole, entirely low-key approach to life. It shows us how he deals with day-in day-out issues, and gives us the firmly backgrounded life that have made him one of Yosemite’s best contemporary wall climbers. The interviews with his brother Gabe are fabulous.

On the Great Slab that is, essentially, Wings of Steel, McNeely took six falls each day. Indeed, he fell more than half the height of the 900-foot Great Slab in the first nine days.

The falls shredded Barber’s nerves and there are several initial scenes in which Barber wants to go down. She hangs in and eventually gets up the wall (I would like to know what Ammon owes her at this point). But Barber and McNeely’s humility and honesty make this film much more than a documentary about Wings of Steel’s second ascent. The issues surrounding Wings of Steel aren’t resolved by the creation of this film, but it is a touching, thoughtful, and exciting film about doing a big wall, regardless of location. (McNeely’s videotaped yanking off flakes with his Talon hooks several times and tumbling yards at a time.)

The ways it’s edited also works well. The Wings debacle comes across as a serious turf war in the beginning, and it’s hard to watch some of the discussion knowing that this is just bickering among climbers. But, Vargen does a great job zooming out to a greater picture of climbing, location, personalities, and other issues, and then turning the film toward personal issues—fear, injuries, pain, and just getting up a damn climb.

In the end, this film is really about communications. In 1982, the communications between Smith and Jensen and the Valley locals weren’t there, clearly. Today, with so much being shared every minute of every day, and with people like Vargen compiling it carefully, communications have improved dramatically. All of the people in this film share the same values and love the same chunk of the earth’s crust. That they got a little sideways with each other is too bad. Hopefully, we’ll never see a repeat of something like Wings.

Starring and with footage by Ammon McNeely and Kait Barber. Also starring Mark Jensen, Richard Smith, Eric Kohl, Ron Kauk, Chris McNamara, Hans Florine, Peter Haan, Gabe McNeely, and Steve Grossman.  More information about the film can be found at Assaultonelcapitan.com.

Cam Burns’s most recent contribution to the world of literature was in To Nepal with Love and Adventure at High Risk.

Mountain Media #192

Salt to Summit

Books: “Salt To Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney,” by Daniel Arnold

As the crow flies, 84.6 miles separate Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, from the lowest in North America, Badwater Basin in Death Valley. One could choose to bridge the distance between the two points with roads and established trails in 146 miles, but you would miss the raw power of the landscape they circumvent. It is for precisely that reason that writer and vagabond extraordinaire, Daniel Arnold, decided to take the route less travelled, which he chronicles in his latest book, “Salt to Summit.”

Determined to link these natural wonders in his own way, Daniel escapes Los Angeles by bus and hitchhikes the last stretch of road into Death Valley to begin his adventure. After topping off his 85-pound pack, lovingly nicknamed “The Goblin,” with water, he sets off across the same salty flats that drove uninitiated pioneers to madness and death. Aimed at the summit of Mount Whitney, Daniel lets the need for water, the curves of unfamiliar canyons, the trails of daredevil sheep and the oppressive sun determine his path to the summit.

This is more than a tale of climbing Mount Whitney from the very bottom. It’s a tale of how the wilds have always found handholds in us and what is possible when we follow the pressure. Before Arnold, the Shoshone, the Paiute, John Muir, Mary Austin, mysterious hermits and legendary 49ers all chose to survive by the rules of this desolate country to reach one end or another.  Daniel uses these mostly forgotten histories to shade the story of his excursion with a depth that tugs at the reader’s sense of adventure and makes them wonder why they aren’t out exploring the same wild spaces before it’s too late.  $17.95, amazon.com

— Cole Lehman 

souls and water

Short Film: “Of Souls + Water,” by Forge Motion Pictures

Forge Motion, a small film company founded in 2007, attracted the attention of many in the paddling community with its 2011 film “Wildwater.” Billed as a “journey into the mind and soul of whitewater,” the initial trailer for “Wildwater” featured stunning HD video footage of one of the most impressive feats in modern whitewater kayaking — a record-high June 2010 run of Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette. By combining off-the-charts production values and filming techniques, talented athletes and thoughtful interviews, Forge Motion produced a landmark achievement in paddling cinematography.

Now, a year later, Forge Motion is back with another project for the paddling community. Produced in association with NRS, “Of Souls + Water” is a series of five video shorts released monthly starting in April 2012. The films consist of gorgeous, slow-motion shots that at times feel more like photography than film, accompanied by a monologue delivered by the nameless subject. The jaw-dropping visuals go a long way toward anchoring the somewhat abstract philosophical musings that anyone who has spent time on the water can relate to, but ultimately hardcore boaters accustomed to watching tightly cut sequences of stout drops with a pulsing Dub Step soundtrack will likely be disappointed by the slow pace and lack of a narrative. Those looking for an artistic examination of how the waterways we love share the human experience, however, will find Forge’s newest work thought provoking, inspiring and deeply memorable. Free, http://community.nrsweb.com/souls-and-water

— Ben Peters

reveal the path

Film: “Reveal the Path,” by Mike Dion

In Mike Dion’s latest mountain-bike film, “Reveal the Path,” he and three compatriots (including Tour Divide record holder Matthew Lee) travel on a global bikepacking trip to ride new trails, meet new people and challenge themselves at every turn. While it’s missing the built-in narrative of Dion’s previous film, “Ride The Divide,” “Reveal The Path” does a wonderful job at inspiring a little wanderlust, which the film declares to be its objective in the opening scene. Mission accomplished, then, right? Mostly.

I was left wanting more stories at every stop, and specifically, more about the inter-destination travel. The four riders flew from the U.S. to Wales to Switzerland to Morocco to Nepal to Alaska. Anyone who’s flown more than a couple states away knows that the farther you travel, the greater the likelihood of lost baggage, missed planes, surly customs agents and interpersonal discord. How difficult was it to bring four mountain bikes and all the gear between countries?

That said, the time the riders spent in Nepal looked like just about the most fun you could have on two wheels — until they flew to Alaska and broke out fatbikes for some beach riding. The smiles in the Alaskan segment likely did as much as the rest of the film to inspire folks to go ride a bike and find their own path. $29.99, revealthepath.com

— Brian Bernard

Mountain Media #190

BOOKS: “The Responsible Company,” by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley

The Responsible Company

By now you’ve likely heard the story — in the late-’60s, itinerant surfer and big-wall climber Yvon Chouinard began hand-forging climbing gear in a seaside shed under the name Chouinard Equipment. He eventually added a clothing line, which grew into outdoor apparel giant and environmental champion Patagonia, a company that now banks somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million a year. Somewhere along the way, however, Chouinard became a poster child for socially and environmentally conscious business management, and his latest book, “The Responsible Company,” distills what he and co-author and Patagonia veteran Vincent Stanley have learned on the subject throughout the company’s 40-year history.

Early in the book, the authors reveal that Patagonia’s attention-getting practices have them keeping some odd bedfellows theses days, most notably price-slashing juggernaut Wal-Mart, which Patagonia has been consulting on environmental improvements over the last few years.

It seems Wal-Mart and countless other major companies are coming to the sobering realization and fairly common-sense ideal that Patagonia has operated on for years — “doing good creates better business.” In other words, the less resources and energy consumed by a company, the more profit they will make.

Despite some modest examples of Patagonia’s successful environmental initiatives, the book isn’t rife with the kind of horn-tooting one might expect from a book on business published by a for-profit company. On the contrary, Chouinard and Stanley level the playing field by stating that Patagonia is not the model for a responsible company, and there is no human economic activity that is yet worthy of the popular buzzword “sustainable.”

In addition to an interesting state-of-the-union address on business and the environment, the meat of the book is a sort of elemental style guide for responsible business practices, something useful for not only CEOs and corporate bigwigs, but anyone looking to create a more meaningful existence at work.

So perhaps responsible is the new sustainable — any company can boast about philanthropic work or financial donations, but it requires something more to take responsibility for the inherent environmental and social damage done by your company and make steps to alleviate it.

$19.95, www.patagonia.com

-Andy Anderson

MUSIC: “A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door,” by The River Whyless

River Whyless

As if nodding to the muse of nature that inspired it, “A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door” begins with the sound of footsteps next to a nearby stream. After a few folky, fiddle-filled movements, the music gains strength, as curiosity often does when looking under the right rocks. The wandering tune reaches a celebratory high point and then gracefully descends. Such an orchestrated outline follows the full arc of an album, but this is only the first song of ten.

The River Whyless, a four-piece folk band from Asheville, NC, has created a musical wonder with their first album. Though at times sounding similar to Fleet Foxes or The Head and The Heart, the dual-songwriting efforts of Ryan O’Keefe and Halli Anderson have laid the foundation for something thoughtfully original as well as genuinely Appalachian. Underneath it all, the crisp, flowing rhythms of Matt Rossino on bass and Alex McWalters on drums both anchor and elevate the artful song structures. Freshman effort or not, The River Whyless has created a unified, coming-of-age album that’s best ingested in its entirety. For a quick taste, check out “Cedar Dream Part II,” “Great Parades,’” “Pigeon Feathers” or “Stone” … or “Unfound Door” … or you might as well just listen to it all. Go to www.riverwhyless.bandcamp.com, where you can listen to the album and name your price (hello, free music!) for an instant download, as well as check for upcoming tour dates.

— Jeff Miesbauer

APPS: Columbia GPS PAL

GPS PAL

While some branded smartphone apps seem to be little more than a thinly veiled marketing gimmick, the GPS PAL app from Columbia Sportswear stands out as a truly useful tool that just happens to be stamped with a brand name.

The GPS PAL, which stands for Personal Activity Log, provides GPS tracking with the ability to log photos, notes and videos as waypoints along the route. It tracks distance, time, pace and elevation automatically and provides a cool summary when your route is finished. The app also automatically syncs your routes and trip reports to an online journal, where they can be shared, compared and organized.

As a climber, I could see the app being extremely useful for approaches with difficult route-finding, but hikers, backpackers, runners and mountain bikers will find it an easy replacement for a GPS unit in most cases. It has already come in handy for measuring progress on training runs and relocating poop bags on after-work hikes with my dog.

Add to that the fact that it costs nothing, doesn’t require any map downloads (it maps through Google), tracks well without cell phone service and works better overall than some apps I’ve paid five bucks for, and the GPS PAL is a real keeper. The only real downside is that running the GPS for long periods of time (multi-hour hikes) seems to drain the phone’s battery quickly.

Free, GPSPAL. Columbia.com

— AA

Mountain Media #188

A Story for Tomorrow

Film: “A Story For Tomorrow,” by Gnarly Bay Productions

“A Story for Tomorrow” has 400,000 views on Vimeo because it taps into something: It captures the feeling of a trip that could be your trip. It is a 5½-minute video that is the perfect answer to the question “How was your trip?” And you wish instead of telling people, “Oh, we had a great time,” that you could make something like “A Story for Tomorrow” and show it to them instead. As soon as it stops at 5 minutes, 36 seconds, you find yourself starting to research plane tickets, maybe, but not necessarily to Chile, where Dana Saint shot the footage for the film (including Patagonia and the Atacama Desert). Narrated by Argentine actor Castulo Guerra, the film is more than vacation shots — the voice-over gives it a fairy-tale feel, and you can’t help be inspired to do something other than sit at your desk when he asks, “Did you enjoy your story?” vimeo.com/36519586 

Climbing Zine

Kindle: “The Climbing Zine,” by Luke Mehall

For Volume III of The Climbing Zine, writer, climber and all-around swell guy/dirtbag Luke Mehall decided to make the digital leap and bring his publication from its grassroots in southwest Colorado and make it available on Amazon.com’s Kindle Reader. Mehall, whose work has appeared in Climbing, the MG, Rock and Ice and Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line blog, has made the hard-copy ’zine available at locations in Durango, Crested Butte and Gunnison or by mail since its inception, a homegrown publication true to the DIY/tradition of ’zines. Luke’s homespun tales make up the majority of the content, and he’s been living the life long enough, and climbed so extensively, that you feel his well of stories might never run out — and could power the ’zine for decades. I don’t own a Kindle, but I love the Kindle iPhone app, and I love the idea of taking the The Climbing Zine with me on my phone in a tent, dentist office waiting room, airport security line and you know, public restroom. $4, amazon.com, climbingzine.com 

Mountain Heroes

Books: “Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure,” by Huw Lewis-Jones

How awesome could a book of portraits of mountaineers and climbers be? Pretty awesome. “Mountain Heroes” is an encyclopedia of legendary figures spanning the 20th century: Sir Chris Bonington, Yvon Chouinard, Lynn Hill, George Lowe, Tom Hornbein, Reinhold Messner, Don Whillians, Steph Davis, Galen Rowell, Sir Edmund Hillary, Dean Potter, Apa Sherpa, Ines Papert, Maurice Herzog, Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Tenzing Norgay, Steve House, Fred Beckey, George Mallory — to name just a few of the characters profiled. Each portrait is accompanied by the climber’s bio, making this a CliffsNotes of the who’s who in the history of mountain climbing. It’s paperback, but coffee table material — full-color photos, and easy to pick up and flip through for a couple minutes, and then an hour.
$30, falcon.com 

Web: Nature Valley Trail View

If you understand Google Street View, the technology that enabled Google to let you look at a 360-degree photo of any neighborhood on your computer screen, you will understand Nature Valley Trail View, which shows you 300 miles of trails in three national parks. Which is pretty rad. I’ll just go out on a limb and say that a 360-degree view from the Grandview Trail in the Grand Canyon is better than almost anything on Google Street View. A team used a backpack camera to capture footage of trails in the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains national parks (a good bet since those three are the perennial top-three-visited national parks in America). The application, which launched in March, is free to view on the web at
naturevalleytrailview.com.

Nature Valley Trail View

Film & Tech: “23 Feet,” ParkFinder mobile app

23 Feet

23 Feet Outdoor DocumentaryTwenty-five-year-old filmmaker Allie Bombach and two friends set out with their 23-foot 1970 Airstream trailer to find a community they knew was out there: People living simply in the American West, giving up the comforts of what we think is “home” in order to be closer to their passions in the outdoors. “23 Feet” profiles four characters living simple lives in California, Utah and Oregon, and tells the story of the filmmakers’ journey to find those lives. Out of the four characters profiled, Yosemite legend Ron Kauk is a definite highlight — years of living in and around Yosemite have helped him shape his philosophy of living, and listening to him speak from his campsite in Tuolumne Meadows, you can’t help but wish you could sell all your stuff and move in next door to him. Maybe even more fun than the film itself was the four-month tour to premiere the film: Five women packed into the 23-foot Airstream to drive all over the West and screen the film, outdoors, in towns in Utah, Arizona, California and Oregon. In the outdoor film genre, we’ve got plenty of glamorous movies that treat our outdoor passions as an end in themselves —  “23 Feet” is the first work of a refreshing new voice that looks deeper than the face value of our pastimes, and looks for a soul. Bad news is the tour is over — good news is the DVD is now for sale.
$15, redreelvideo.com

Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder Mobile App

Oh, Ranger! Parkfinder mobile appOn the last day of the summer Outdoor Retailer show, someone next to me handed me a business card with details on how to download the Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder mobile app. It was the best free thing I got the entire trade show. That night, I drove north from Salt Lake City, the start of a month of living out of my car, camping and climbing. The free app gives the user a guide to parks all over the United States, searchable by activity. Most of the time, I used it to find places to camp for the night after driving all day, and having a map of all the available campsites within a few minutes of my current location was invaluable. Less adventurous? Maybe. But how cool is the idea of taking off on a road trip with nothing but a smart phone in your pocket? The app finds parks based on things to do — camping, cycling, climbing, hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, et cetera, and uses your phone’s maps application to show all parks in the area with those activities. The price — free — can’t be beat. Now, if they could just make an app that showed secluded places to sleep in my car, and best places to find $5 showers.
ohranger.com 

Off Belay Podcast

Podcast: Off Belay Podcast with Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller

Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller have a lot to say about climbing, and almost none of it is about sponsored athletes, the newest, flashiest gear, or news in the world of climbing, The Off Belay Podcast is a candid discussion of the important stuff. How candid? Well, maybe your dog doesn’t belong at the crag. Or your kid. Maybe you should stop bitching when you show up at Indian Creek, the most-famous crag in Colorado (oh, it’s in Utah?), and there are dozens of other people there. Chris and Jamie have had a few guests on the show, but the highlight is their own banter — whether it’s about online climbing forums, guns, hung draws or whatever. Between the two of them, Chris and Jamie have written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, 303 Magazine, Men’s Health, the Snowmass Sun and others. And oh yeah, the Mountain Gazette, where Chris was the gear editor for a number of years. Jamie Lynn is also an on-air personality at Aspen Public Radio’s Sonic Byways. The Off Belay Podcast might be the most fun you’ll have listening to two people you don’t know talk about climbing you haven’t done. offbelaypodcast.com

Steep Edge Online Film Rental

Films: Steep Edge online film rental

If you’re familiar with Netflix and you’re a mountain person, you might know that the Web-DVD and streaming movie service has “The Eiger Sanction,” the Clint Eastwood 1975 climbing-murder movie, available to stream directly to your computer. Aside from that and a handful of ski and snowboard porn films, the selection of mountain movies is somewhat limited. If you’ve ever sat at home and wished you could watch a climbing or skiing movie without having to pay $29.95 to own it, you’ll want to check out SteepEdge.com, where you can stream, or buy digitally, hundreds of films on kayaking, mountain culture, climbing, adventure racing, mountaineering, mountain
biking, polar adventure and other topics. Films can be rented for three days of watching for $4-$6, or purchased for $12-$25. The selection is mostly British and European films, and is heavy on climbing — but my hope is that someone in the U.S. would be inspired by the idea and start a similar business on this side of the Atlantic — kind of like we did with “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Steep Edge was imagined as “virtual mountain film festival” by seven British founders who are climbers, hikers, cyclists and entrepreneurs, some of whom founded the Kendal Mountain Film Festival in the U.K. in 1979. steepedge.com

Movies: “Cold” by Forge Motion Pictures

A good adventure-sports movie, no matter what sport it covers, usually accomplishes one thing: It makes you, the viewer, want to go out and do whatever it is those athletes are doing on film in that beautiful location, at your own speed — mountain biking, climbing, skiing, whatever. “Cold” is an achievement in that, instead of inspiring you to climb an 8,000-meter peak in winter, it makes you want to go home, curl up in the fetal position under a down comforter, and not come out.

The film begins with photographer and climber Cory Richards hunkered down in a tent at 21,959 feet, as the viewer is informed that the temperature is -51 degrees F., and can see that the inside of the tent is covered in snow. Richards asks, “What the fuck am I doing here?” And over the next 20 minutes of the film, you will ask the same thing. Richards and mountaineers Simone Moro and Denis Urubko summited 26,362-foot Gasherbrum II on Feb. 2, 2010, succeeding in the first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in the Karakorum Range.

“Cold” gives you an up-front seat to all the post-holing, avalanche burials, whiteouts and the high-altitude coughs. Anson Fogel assembled Richards’ tirelessly filmed footage, and, with writing help from Kelly Cordes, won the Best Adventure Film at the 5Point Film Festival this spring. This is not three guys smiling for one moment in a summit photo. It’s real pain, cold, suffering and misery — high-altitude winter mountaineering at its best. It may not be inspiring, but it is amazing. forgemotionpictures.com

Movies: “The Love Letter”

Movies: “The Love Letter,” by Fitz Cahall, Becca Cahall and Mikey Schaefer

Writer and Dirtbag Diaries creator Fitz Cahall is building a new business model for outdoor filmmakers: In the past, climbing, skiing and kayaking movies have gotten sponsorship funding from outdoor gear companies, slaved away around the world getting great footage of top athletes and then produced DVDs to sell at 25 or 30 bucks apiece. Fitz (most of the time with filmmaker Bryan Smith as his partner) has decided to get sponsorship from gear companies, slave away around the U.S. to get great footage of top athletes and putting movies on the Internet for free, sometimes on the sponsoring companies’ web sites. “The Love Letter” is a 12-minute movie about Fitz and Becca’s 45-day trip through the Sierra, backpacking, climbing and getting away from cell phones, e-mail and all the other soul-crushing appliances of daily urban life. It’s a climbing movie, but not a climbing movie. Fitz and Becca probably climb harder than most of us, but the film is about balance, and finding the places that inspire us — not about brahs sending hard boulder problems and screaming while they clip bolts on sport climbs. It’s art, not sports footage, and a breath of fresh air. Give it a shot and you might wish more gear companies directed their sponsorship dollars to real stories like this.

Watch “The Love Letter” on YouTube.

Portrait of the American Climber

Film: “Portrait of The American Climber”

Filmmaker Oakley Anderson-Moore’s father, Mark, was a “full-time” climber for 13 years starting in the early 1970s. He picked fruit during harvest seasons and climbed when he wasn’t picking fruit. In this incredibly exhaustive journalistic effort, she tries to capture that story, and an incredible amount of the other stories in the history of American climbing. By the time the film was finished, literally hundreds of people were involved in the grassroots effort — including the 50 or so legendary climbers interviewed, and the more than 150 donors who contributed upwards of $14,000 on Kickstarter.com. The film is so grassroots that the filmmakers stayed at my pal Lee’s house when they stopped by the American Mountaineering Center in Golden to do an advance screening. Climbers interviewed by the crew (who crossed the country to do many of them) include Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, John Gill, Allen Steck, John Bachar, Lynn Hill, John Long, Ron Kauk, Ed Webster, Peter Croft and Tommy Caldwell, just to name a few. Tons of fantastic historic footage, including the opening scene in the film, archival news footage of the first ascent party topping out on The Nose on El Capitan in 1958. Oakley’s father wasn’t a famous climber, but he’s sharing the stage with about every other famous climber in American history here. I’ve been excited for this movie to come out ever since the advance screening in November 2010. “Portrait of The American Climber” is a nice balance to compliment all the contemporary climbing films that celebrate the most-difficult-route-du-jour — we spend all this time looking forward in tiny increments, but not enough looking back at the pioneers who got climbing to where it is now. www.rockadventuremovie.com